HYCS #33 – Don’t Collect Data Without a Plan

HYCS #33 – Don’t Collect Data Without a Plan

If you are using data too soon in the consulting relationship, you may be selling rather than consulting.    If you aren’t using all 4 steps of the Diagnosing stage, you are almost certainly selling.

Reading time: 4 mins

Assignment Time: No additional time:  It’s a thought assignment

Are you surprised that Diagnosis has 4 stages?  In a Consulting Skills class I recently taught, it came as a shock that data collection needed to be structured and involve the client so deeply. Diagnosis is a pivotal stage in the consulting cycle. Going through all 4 stages shows clients the gap between what they have now and what they want.  It also turns customers into partners.

1. Planning

2. Collecting Data

3. Analyzing Data

4. The Data Feedback Meeting

Data is powerful.  It can help open a closed mind when it’s handled skillfully.  It can make difficult or expensive action seem inevitable and light a lasting fire under a client.

But, it’s not the data that does all that work.  It’s the conversation about what the data means. Because data isn’t much of any use to anyone until we decide what it means.


The best plan comes directly from the goals you’ve helped your client uncover in the Entering phase of the Consulting Cycle.  Without those goals, how do you know what data to gather?

For example, say you’ve got a client who wants to attract the best scientists in the area.  Although you and your client have some ideas about what scientists really want in an employer, data would be better.  Your plan includes what data to gather, how to gather it, and where to get the data.  Will you hit the library, conduct focus groups of scientists, survey your competitors and your current employees, interview scientists, or split-test web pages with employment ads?

That’s only the first level of planning.  The next level is to design the specific questions, research parameters or ads you’ll use and the information you hope to collect from each.  Then you assign deadlines and leaders for each activity.

The rest of the plan lays out who will analyze the data as well as who will hear the results in a data feedback meeting.

Collecting Data

This is where you execute your plan, and gather the data.  Wherever possible, your client does the data collection.  In our example, we’ve decided to split-test ads that tout different strengths of the company for two-weeks, post on the 3 major online forums where scientists look for work, interview our employees and have them  interview their fellow scientists.  I like doing interviews with an internal partner.

Analyzing the Data

Collecting data makes a big mess.  There’s too much of it.  It’s not uniform, it’s hard to know how to value it, it can lead to unexpected and unwelcome conclusions, and it’s time-consuming.  The most important thing in data analysis is not to change its meaning as you manipulate the data.   You don’t want to decide what it means yet.  You just want to wrangle the data so it’s more manageable, and easier to present in the data feedback meeting.  There is a sweet spot between leaving the data too raw and sprawling,  and analyzing it to the point your client rejects it.  Err on the side of raw and sprawling.

As much as possible, I do this with an internal partner so we can keep each other neutral.  The analysis has to be done quickly so the data doesn’t get stale.  1-2 weeks is what I allow for this phase; less is better.

The Data Feedback Meeting

The data feedback meeting is like a fulcrum:  Getting the right people in the room for this meeting is the difference between a project that goes forward with support and one that is resisted and undermined.   You will include people in the organization that so far have not participated, like executives, sponsors, employees.  You plan will specify who is coming.

The data feedback meeting that demands superhuman meeting skills.  Do not attempt this without help.  You must listen without defensiveness and be more patient than is humanly possible.  Your job is to help people work through their reluctance to accept the data so that they can agree on what it means.

You will be tested:  They will question your data collection methods, your decisions about which data to collect, the way you analyzed it and what it seems to mean.  They will question you.  Do not lose your cool or your patience: this is how people act when they are coming up a long learning curve.  You will know when they have finished the climb because they will get quieter and more thoughtful.  They will start talking about their personal reactions, what it all means and “what we need to do.”

Write it all down so everyone can see it and ask them to lump them together in categories.   Those categories are your diagnosis.  An action plan will spring naturally from them and be carried out by them.

Your prize:  A successful Diagnosing stage shifts the weight of implementation to the client.  It’s like magic.


Notice when you are working with your client to diagnose and when you are doing it for them.  Diagnosing with a client means they leave with the to do list.  Doing it for them means you won’t have their full participation in anything that follows.  Which is more typical for you?  Is there something you can do differently?